Director Giovani Borba’s “Empty House,” produced by Tatiana Sager at Brazil’s Panda Filmes, stands out among this year’s packed Sanfic Industria Work in Progress sidebar, not so much for its unique proposition – there are at least two other films which share many of its neo-Western sensibilities – but for its execution and exceptional visuals.
Set against the seemingly endless plains along the Brazil-Uruguay border, Borba paints a deft picture of the encroachment of industrialization that has long inspired the Western genre. As with any good cowboy flick, “Empty House” features a leather-skinned, taciturn man of a just-bygone era in Raúl, an unemployed cattleman living in a humble, yet picturesque house plopped down in the middle of a vast sea of dry grass.
Devastated by poverty and unemployment, Raúl joins up with a gang of cattle rustlers who use the cover of night to butcher other people’s livestock. When his wife and children leave him alone in an empty house, Raúl must look for more honest work, but honest work is in short supply for men of his skills. With nothing but bad options available to him, Raúl must struggle with his own moral compass as he decides how to go forward.
Borba spoke with Variety about his debut feature ahead of its WIP screening.
Aesthetically and thematically, the Western influences behind “Empty House” are clear and well executed. When you started writing, were you setting out to make a Western?
Undoubtedly the Western was a strong visual influence on “Empty House.” In the beginning, the project was focused only on the family drama of a poor cattleman, but Brazil’s political and social climate was strained every day. At the same time, the field research that I did on the border between Brazil and Uruguay revealed stories of conflicts and violence in the fields told by farmers, police and cattle thieves. I realized that the theme of violence in the fields could allow the film to flirt with the Western genre, and from there, I started to seek it out. I also realized that the landscape that I’d known since my childhood, of flat green fields that seemed endless, is being superimposed by a global scale soy production, which brought with it an invasion of technology. I wanted this present time as an outline of the film.
What is it about the genre that attracts you as a filmmaker? And why do you think the genre still works even in a modern setting of wind turbines pick-up trucks?
I would risk saying that the tension and the violence of the Western can reflect the times we live in, especially in a Latin American context. “Empty House,” as I said, wasn’t initially developed for this genre, but I started to incorporate aspects as I felt the need to react to political events in Brazil. The technology that invades this Western landscape of the film is a contemporary element of tension and hostility. It builds a conflict in the face of the fragility of poor people, landless and aimless.
Who did you make this film for? What is the audience you had in mind and who would you like to see in the theaters watching it?
This is my first feature, and it is also an arthouse film. I like the idea of attracting an audience interested in discovering stories from my region, southern Brazil, southern Latin America. It would be incredible to attract an audience that looks for films to understand people and their unique stories.
For “Empty House” you employed both professional and non-professional actors, opting to put a novice in the film’s lead role. What motivated you to cast the film this way?
I’m so happy with the balanced and organic composition between the professional actors and the non-actors that we have in the film. Raúl is indeed played by a non-actor; in life he is a cattleman. A simple man who lives in a small community in the city of Rivera, Uruguay. Obviously, I couldn’t be sure if it would work, but I was sure it was what I wanted. The professional actors were very generous with me and to the non-actors alike. There was a beautiful energy on the set.
One thing this film doesn’t have in common with old-school Westerns is its runtime. Was there an intention to keep the film around 90 minutes, or was that all you needed to tell the story you wanted to tell?
The film has some long takes, so the first cuts were much longer. I was able to count on the partnership of two excellent editors, who are also directors. It was in the editing stage of this film that I was able to understand the real meaning of the book “Sculpting in Time” by Tarkovsky. Understand not only the time in the editing of the film itself but also the maturation time of the editing work. As we shortened the length of the film, I felt that it generated more power for the long takes.